A Question of Credibility

The White House has taken another hit on its credibility in connection with the CIA leak investigation.

“If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration,” President Bush said Monday. He did not specify whether felony or misdemeanor. And the verb “committed” implies that the someone has actually been convicted, suggesting that the accused leaker could stay on during indictment and trial.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan vehemently denied it, but in fact the president had lowered the standard for what it would take to fire someone. Last summer, Bush indicated that he would fire anyone involved in leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

That higher standard for dismissal was coming dangerously close to fitting two highly valued White House aides, deputy chief of staff and political seer Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby.

Of course, that had congressional Democrats in full and self-righteous cry, demanding that the aides be fired or, at the very least, have their security clearances revoked, a measure that as a practical matter would make them unemployable in the White House.

What we know about Rove’s and Libby’s conversations with reporters is this: In phone calls with Time’s Matt Cooper, they said they had heard secondhand that administration critic Joseph Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. And, pending word from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, that’s about it.

Meanwhile, McClellan was having credibility problems of his own. Having earlier said he had personally verified that Rove had nothing to do with the leak, he has now clammed up, repeating the mantra that neither he nor anyone else in the White House could comment because there was an ongoing investigation. But as he was saying this, the Republican National Committee was putting out talking points in defense of Rove that had clearly been coordinated with the White House.

The upshot is an eroding credibility, evidence of which is an ABC News poll that shows only 25 percent of the public believes the White House is cooperating fully with the leak investigation.

Many in Washington believe that the president moved up his announcement of a Supreme Court nominee and did so in prime time in order to drive the Rove story off the top of the news. Hard to blame him.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)